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Even with spin, Florida’s schools have it bad

If your desire is to be critical of Florida’s education system, statistics make it pretty easy. Take, for instance, a report released by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center that found the Florida high school graduation rate at a scant 57.5 percent, ranking No. 46 in the country. While these numbers are horrific, there is plenty of blame to go around for public officials and parents alike.

It is important to first understand how this study came up with its findings. Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, researchers calculated “the probability that a student in ninth grade will complete high school on time and with a regular diploma,” according to USA Today.

The interesting part of the study is the disparity among local school districts. Hillsborough County graduated 70 percent of its students on time, while Pinellas only graduated 46.5 percent, an abysmal ninth worst in relation to the 50 biggest school districts in America.

One would think with all this bad news that the superintendent of Pinellas County Schools, Clayton Wilcox, would be in the hot seat. Higher average wages, lower unemployment and less dependence on public assistance are the hallmarks of educational achievement, but in Pinellas County fewer than half of students will graduate from high school in four years.

But rather than hold the superintendent accountable, the school board recently gave him favorable marks on an annual job evaluation and extended his contract through 2010. While Wilcox is not solely to blame, his leadership in terms of student success is certainly lacking.

On a state level, Governor Jeb Bush’s response to this study should come as no surprise. A common line of reasoning seems to be that when you don’t like the results, you attack the study. His response was to say, “Those aren’t accurate numbers, but we have improved our graduation rate measured by any means.”

His claim of inaccuracy reflects the Florida statistics that indicate higher graduation rates. For example, the state Department of Education lists Pinellas County Schools as having a 69 percent graduation rate for the same 2002-03 period.

But this is convenient trickery. The federal No Child Left Behind Act allows states to determine their own graduation rates, for which they certainly have an incentive to inflate the numbers. Florida partially accomplishes this by counting students that are awarded General Equivalency Diplomas (GED) as having graduated.

Of course this statewide measure is based on results of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), which apparently don’t indicate the likelihood of graduating from high school. Bush indicates that “Our education system should not be a one-size-fits-all system for every student,” but standardized tests that are linked to teacher bonuses create an environment where teachers have little incentive to do more than teach the test.

While parents may be confused by the metrics used to judge their children’s education, that doesn’t let them off the hook. Many talented and vastly underpaid teachers enter our classrooms every year and must face overwhelming odds. Students and classrooms without supplies and behavioral issues are but a few of these challenges. Active participation of parents in the learning process is crucial. Pumping more money into the school system will never accomplish the learning that must be done at home.

So, despite the blame that can be placed on public officials and parents, the education system in Florida seems ill-equipped for fundamental changes. Apparently, it is more convenient to argue about the validity of numbers stating how far we are behind than to make adequate education the goal of everyone in this state. After all, education can open many doors to success, but only if those failing kids change course.

Aaron Hill is a senior majoring in economics.